Then in 11th grade at Cubberley High School, I joined Alternative School Cubberley, or ASC. Those two years were some of the best of my life.
We called teachers by their first names, and instead of sitting in rows at desks facing the teacher we sat in circles on rugs leaning against huge pillows. Instead of classes, we had "seminars," where teachers encouraged our critical-thinking skills with discussions that sometimes led to lively debates.
The school had somewhere between 100 and 150 students, and the non-conformist peer culture was more intimate and personal than the mainstream culture of the "regular school." I was sometimes greeted with hugs, and playful touching in our day-to-day interactions. Instead of being interested in cheerleading, school dances and wearing make-up, many of us were interested in things like vegetarianism, organic gardening, protecting the environment and ending South African apartheid. ASC was mentioned in The Environmental Handbook.
Seminars ranged from transpersonal psychology, nutrition and Native American studies to massage and human sexuality. Some of them, such as the last two, were held at night at teachers' or students houses.
Although we had the same graduation requirements as everyone else, we had the freedom to plan with our teachers how we would meet them. We could choose from the myriad of seminars offered or do home study. We could get all our credits through ASC or take some classes in the regular school. I took Mandarin Chinese and typing in the regular school and most of the rest through ASC.
Sure there were some stoners and slackers, but they didn't define the school atmosphere. Many of us went on to college, including schools such as Stanford and UCLA.
We had parties and took trips together, and we hung out during lunch and after school. On trips to the beach students and one teacher skinny-dipped in the ocean. (The skinny-dipping teacher was later accused of inappropriate behavior.)
ASC students and teachers sometimes got together with what was Paly's alternative school, known as Apple Pie High, which met in the top of the Tower Building.
ASC wasn't perfect. I went on to a state college still having problems with my writing skills. But that didn't happen because of ASC being what it was.
ASC was a refuge of diversity and social acceptance amidst a mundane and impersonal milieu, a haven for free-thinkers, and an oasis of sanity. ASC was the beginning of my opened-minded world view. It taught me that there was more than one right way to learn.
It was also, without my realizing it, my solution to being physically and socially challenged, and my de facto alternative to having an individualized education plan.
Then Cubberley closed, and ASC with it, the year after I graduated.
When my son Dale, who also has Tourette syndrome and learning challenges, started high school at Paly with an individualized education plan 26 years later, I thought Apple Pie High was still there. I thought it would provide the same refuge for Dale that ASC had for me. But it no longer existed, and the top of the Tower Building was deemed unsafe during earthquakes and closed.
"What? You mean you no longer have an alternative school for the students any more?" I remember asking one of the administrators.
"Just Transitions," the administrator said. She explained that it was a program only for students with serious attendance or emotional issues, and that Dale, who was also labeled "gifted," was too high functioning to qualify.
I didn't see how, with his hands-on, kinesthetic learning style, he could thrive in Play's "regular school" environment, but he was determined to give it a try. Although he made a lot of friends and was well liked by his teachers, it was an academic nightmare. With the frequent phone calls, letters and e-mails from his teachers informing me that he wasn't keeping up, the fruitless school meetings, and the regular arguments over homework, the constant stress took its toll on our family.
With the help of a tutor and an understanding resource-room teacher, Dale tested out of Paly at the end of 10th grade, just after he turned 16. He says it's one of the best decisions he ever made.
The next year a friend's daughter with similar issues also graduated two years early. Dale is now 20 and finishing his AA degree at Foothill. He also works as a "techie," and has his own business.
But if only there had been an alternative school at Paly like the one I'd attended, offering students other choices with the same flexibility that I'd had. Perhaps then Dale, and so many others like him, would have had other options besides early graduation for alleviating their school stress.
Perhaps then more students would have, figuratively and literally, survived high school.